Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Duo RO serves up bluegrass from Russia with Love

One of the first countries to ever reflect the extent of America’s musical influence was the Soviet Union. Even at the height of the Cold War, visiting musicians from the US managed to find an immediate connection with their Russian audiences, and in turn, do their part to help thaw the American/Russian divide. When the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band became the first American band to tour the Soviet Union in 1977, the response was especially overwhelming, resulting in more than two dozen sold-out shows and a newly-found common bond that could have only been achieved through making music. 

That legacy has thrived ever since. Today, a pair of young musicians that call themselves Duo RO apply their love for traditional American music to a sound and style they’ve pursued since 2014. The group, consisting of Olga Egorova (mandolin, vocal) and Roman Palmov (guitar, backing vocals) freely incorporate elements of American bluegrass, Russian folk, progressive rock, and classical music to create a unique hybrid that they refer to as Russian progressive bluegrass. It’s an adept blend, one that consists of  extended and often complex instrumentals, as well as catchier compositions that are served up with a seeming knack for ease and agility. It’s also a dual dynamic that’s won them a legion of fans, not only in Russia but throughout Europe as well. Part of the reason has to do with a pair of albums, Duo RO (2015) and Octave (2019).

For her part, Egorova has been cited as Russia’s top mandolin player and one of the country’s most versatile musicians — little wonder considering the fact that she’s been making music since the age of six. Nevertheless, her awareness and interest in bluegrass came much later. “I didn’t hear anything about bluegrass until I was twenty,” she professes. “I was lucky to study the domra — the Russian version of the mandolin — professionally. Plus, the bluegrass circle in our country is so small that we know each other personally, and so one way or another, I became acquainted with the popular Russian band KukuruzA. It really was a revelation, because many of us grew up on their songs. My introduction to bluegrass came through Andrey Shepelev, a dobro player from that band. The first people I heard that were really considered bluegrass were New Grass Revival and Nickel Creek.”

Palmov, her partner, possess a reputation as an exceptional guitarist, with broad musical tastes that run the gamut from bluegrass to classic rock and even heavy metal. “In my very early childhood, I heard quite a bit of bluegrass and country music,” he recalls. “My father, George Palmov, is a mandolin player in KukuruzA, the Russian country folk band that Olga referred to. They toured America in the ’90s and brought back a variety of music that I avidly devoured, and maybe even became a little ‘poisoned’ by. As a teenager however, I was more interested in rock and metal, and I also played in some punk bands.”

While Egorova insists that traditional country music isn’t always popular in Russia, they’ve still managed to find a comfortable niche that draws both the older audiences that admire grassicana — especially sung in Russian — and a younger hipster crowd that leans towards traditional bluegrass tempered with strains of Irish folk music. To date, they’ve performed at any number of major festivals throughout their native Russia, as well as those held across the continent. That’s in addition to the tours they’ve undertaken in Germany, Spain, France, Monaco, Switzerland, Czech Republic, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, and Moldova.

Egorova goes on to add that the reaction they’ve received has been quite enthusiastic. “It will not be modest,” she insists. “We did not leave anyone indifferent for sure. We like to give out energy, and we feel a double energy returning to us. We also play some shows on the radio, approximately once a month, but we can’t say that it’s increased our audience. Russian people listen to other music, and the most popular radio stations don’t invite us because we don’t play pop music or anything like that.”

That said, the two do manage to find a common connection between the bluegrass they perform and the traditional tapestry of their own country. “Oh, this is a wonderful communication!”  Palmov exclaims. “We can play every Russian folk song in bluegrass. But after that, not everyone will be able to recognize the song, or even recognize the bluegrass.”

Meanwhile, Egorova has managed to expand her own reach, having had the opportunity to perform with several American musicians, among them, Bill Evans, Kevin Welch and Jace Everett. “They are definitely icons to me,” she states somewhat succinctly.

Asked for an opinion on why bluegrass seems to garner such international appeal, Egorova provides a comprehensive and conclusive answer. “Most of the melodies are in a major keys,” she suggests. “They set the listener’s perception to the positive and the joy. It’s a simple and very successful harmonic plan — improvisational melodies that can be intertwined with any style. Progressive bluegrass can sound like anything at all — like pop, funk, rock, jazz, etcetera.”

Palmov concurs. “The acoustic sound of instruments is pleasant to the human ear, especially when compared to electronic music and the rigor of classical music. There’s a certain versatility to bluegrass, which can be found in both an underground passage and in the most chic concert hall.”

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.